Where Many Paths and Errands Meet
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 8, Part 8
at the Prancing Pony
(September 23, 1451)
The hobbits got a late
start (for once Frodo had no objections to as hearty a
meal as the Master of Buckland could lay out) but since
they faced a much shorter journey than the day before, it
didn't matter. A heavy overcast frowned upon the land,
which looked somewhat bare and depressing outside the
borders of The Shire, though in past days Frodo had loved
the swoop and soar of the green hills to either side of
the East/West road. He remembered how, as a child, he'd
gotten a stiff neck from straining to see if he could
spot anything ghostly about the hazy Barrow Downs. He always used to pay particular attention to a stretch where they said that little Tilda Greenbanks rode in one day and never rode out again, and more attention still to a distant spike of stone marking the barrow where his father once lay imprisoned in a spell.
Now, though, he kept his eyes strictly ahead of him,
while his father drew his pony up between Frodo and the
downs, gripping the jewel and casting anxiously about.
Merry road close on the other side, and Bleo followed
"I've seen some strange sights out there," Bleo
"Be quiet, cousin," said Merry, and none of
them spoke another word for miles.
At length a rain began to fall, at first in a bleak mist,
then harder and harder as if all the tears for all the
dead buried in these lands around spilled over them at
once. Frodo gathered close his hood and wondered what
kind of dreary future lay ahead of him. "I can
always refuse," he reminded himself, and rode on.
When at last they could see Bree ahead in the distance,
Merry finally smiled. "Do you remember how it also
rained," he said to Sam, "the first time that we
rode down here together?"
"That I do," Sam said, grinning back. "As
if I didn't feel overwhelmed enough that night!"
Bleo said, "Well, there's a warm, dry inn at the end
of our road, with cold wet drinks lined up for us, and
that's all I care about!"
When they reached the gate, Tim, the Gatekeeper, threw
wide the heavy doors without a pause. "Well, if it
ain't the Master of Buckland! And the Shire Mayor, too?
Is this a get-together of old friends, or a matter of
"Now would I tell you, Tim?" said Merry.
"How's the rheumatism, by the way?"
"Not good, with the weather as it is, but that
liniment you sent over helps. It's a good blend--foreign,
is it? Not everybody cares about the bones of an old
"Well, they should," said Merry, and they rode
on. "Especially in the import/export business,"
Merry murmured when they'd gotten out of earshot.
Frodo felt surprised when they'd reached the Prancing
Pony at how small it actually looked to him. Of course it
stood about four or five times as tall as any building in
The Shire, but he'd last seen the place as a child, and
then it had loomed over him as a hall fit for giants,
thunderous and imposing, full of enormous guests who
roared when they laughed and pounded huge mugs upon a bar
so high above him that it might as well have been a mountain
cliff. But he'd been to the King's court, since, of
course, and now the old inn looked quaint and cozy--which
suited him fine right then.
With relief Frodo surrendered
his pony to the stable-boy and stretched his bones back
into place, then headed eagerly for the common room with
the others, soon liberated from their rain-soaked cloaks
and calling out their orders in the close warmth of the
yeasty, smoky air. The legendary Barliman's
Barley Malt had been another mystery to Frodo
as a lad. Not that
he hadn't tried beer before then, just that the Gaffer's wake had supplied the occasion, within months of his passage through Bree, and so he had felt in no mood to taste beer again for another year, however marvelous. But now the famous beverage offered him a splendid first experience with
which to celebrate his first day outside The Shire since
childhood. Indeed, as a promise of things to come, the
wall behind the bar sported a wooden sign with burnt-in
letters proclaiming, "The King's Favrite Beare
"Now go easy," his father warned him, as their
mugs arrived. "It's stronger than what we serve at
"Yes sir," Frodo said, and tried not to reveal
how he prolonged his sip into a disguised gulp. Ahhh,
heaven! It was all they said, and more. "Wizard's
brew," some called it, and indeed, by some magic he
could taste autumn in the draught, and golden barley
harvests, and the green, twining energy inside the vines
of hops, and the malting sprout bursting with life from
the seed's confines, the rich depths of the earth and the
sparkle of a rainwashed sky. He felt the crispness of a
cooling autumn night in every swallow, soon transformed
into the warmth of sunlight ripening the grain. He felt
the friendliness of reapers mowing side by side, hailing
each other across the field, and the kindliness of the
goodwife clucking over her fermenting tubs, and the
bubbling mirth of fermentation itself, and all the good
that went into the making of fine beer.
"I'll say it's strong," Merry chuckled, while
Frodo marveled that half his mug had vanished between
comment and reply. "One of the chief regrets of my
life is that I wasn't there to see Cousin Frodo dancing
on the table after his third mug! Singing that ridiculous
song of Bilbo's and falling into the crockery."
Young Frodo pricked up his ears--that didn't sound like
any of the other tales he'd heard about his tragic
namesake, though he recalled some vague mention of the
incident, soon swallowed up in darker matters. It warmed
his heart to think of the poor fellow dancing, singing,
probably laughing, as though nothing and no one could be
tragic all the time. Maybe not even Mordor. Frodo knew
they had grainfields in Mordor, around the sea of Nurnen;
Papa had covered that, briefing him over supper last
night. Frodo wondered if they grew hops as well. It
cheered his heart just to think of it.
Frodo spotted a table full of merry hobbit-lasses, who
giggled flirtatiously at his grin and tried to wave him
over, offering fresh-baked cookies. He finished his drink
and stood up to accept, but just then his father said,
"So where's that messenger of yours,
Bleoboris?" while grabbing his son by the belt.
Frodo made an apologetic shrug to the ladies and sat back
"Over there, with the goblet and bottle. That tall,
thin man in black and silver." Frodo turned and
found himself regarded by the keenest gray eyes he'd ever
encountered, in a strangely sculpted, not-quite-human
"That's no man," Frodo said. He had met elves
before. "Legolas!" Sam and Merry cried out in
joy. Sam burst into an ecstatic stream of Elvish, as
fluent as it was grammatically incorrect, but as he
hardly spoke his native tongue much better, that didn't
matter. Legolas leaped across the room and embraced them
both at once; he laughed with the music of water rushing
through a forest stream, and answered Sam's greeting with
words of intoxicating melody, though Frodo soon found his
own limited grasp of the language quite overwhelmed.
"He's an elf?" Bleo said dubiously. "I
guess they're not all they're cracked up to be,
then." Frodo stared at Bleo like the hobbit had gone
crazy. But then Papa pulled him forward and made
introductions, and he shook the immortal's hand, and it
felt warm and firm like any flesh, though the fingers
seemed longer than the usual run.
Merry said, "But what are you doing in Strider's
livery, Legolas? You have your own king, after all."
The elf laughed again. "This? I have to wear it if I
want a drink around here." They looked at him,
puzzled, and his smile faded. "But of course--you
wouldn't know. You see with the eyes of the Third
"I saw," Frodo blurted. When they turned to him
he blushed and said, "That you're an elf."
"Of course he is," said Sam. "But I don't
"Bleo didn't know," Frodo added.
Legolas gave him another intense look; Frodo could almost
feel it, like wind in his face, waking him up when he
didn't know he'd drowsed. "I should not be surprised,
considering who your father is--Sam always did see a
little more than most." Now it was Sam's turn to
blush. "But come, friends, let us sit down at a
proper table while we still have such comforts, and eat,
and drink, and enjoy all the merriment that we fought so hard
As the elf led them to his table, Sam pulled Frodo aside
and whispered, "Son, there's two things you need to
know before we go any further. Number one: never, ever
try to match drinks with an elf--they'll drink you under
the table four times over, and wake you in the morning
singing over breakfast."
"I see. And the second?"
Sam winked. "Never ask your Papa how he knows."
"Now, if I know hobbits," said Legolas,
"you will like the steak and mushroom pie--you should,
for I brought the mushrooms with me from Mirkwood, and
taught Butterbur the recipe in return for forgiving me my
tab. Butterbur," he called, "bring over one of
our special pies for my friends, here, plus more beers
for each of them, and by all the stars more wine for
me!" As a hobbit server carried in the mugs and
bottle, Legolas said, "Now tell me everything that has
happened, Sam, since last we'd met--for my heart reminds
me that you have many responsibilities at home, and cannot
share my road much longer."
"I'll try," said Sam, "But I can't see
much as would interest the son of Thranduil in our small
"But all of it fascinates me, Sam--for it concerns
you! Now tell me all, and don't hold back!" And so
they plunged deep into the politics of the Shire, with
all its absurdities, its charitable moments, its gossip
and its common sense, together with supporting comments
from the Buckland side of things.
Frodo looked longingly
over at the table of the cookie-munching hobbit-lasses.
However fascinated the elf might be by the career of
Mayor Gamgee, Frodo had heard it all ten times before.
But as a well-mannered young hobbit who respected his
elders, he sat dutifully by his father's side, though he
really wondered when they'd get down to the business that
brought him here; he could hardly excuse himself until
When a comely lass pulled out a pennywhistle
and started up a lively tune, the others gathered up
their skirts and danced along, some winking his way when
they twirled on past. Frodo tried not to whimper as they
all found partners that weren't him (including Bleo, of
all people!) Instead he gave his beer the full attention
it deserved (since his father and Legolas gave him
nothing worth heeding) but the flavor kept reminding him
of a harvest-party, hinting of apples and malted-oat
cookies touched by a pleasant tang of smoke upon the air,
overlaid with a savor of ripe straw trampled underfoot
and the rich, bucolic scent of sun-browned bodies
sweating in the dance, the party whirling around them
faster and faster as the pennywhistle picked up speed...
He blinked, once more aware of the inn around him. He saw
no sign of the hobbit lasses anymore, just a servant
wiping up the cookie-crumbs. A pennywhistle trilled
outside, fading into the distance amid laughter and
shouted goodbyes. He put a steadying hand on the table
and said, "Papa, I could really use some food."
Sam said, "Where is that dratted Butterbur, anyway?
It's not like him to starve his guests."
Apologetically Legolas said, "We have had a few minor
misunderstandings between us; I fear that serving me
has not been high on his list of priorities."
"That's no reason to neglect me--I ain't Mayor for
nothing." Sam stood and waved. "Hi!
Barliman Butterbur came up at a trot surprising for one
with hair so gray, their pie already steaming on its
tray, saying, "Forgive me, Mayor Gamgee and Master
Brandybuck! I had no idea it was you sittin' down here
with Mr. Legolas." He set plates down in front of
"We forgive you," Legolas said cheerily.
"Do I get a plate, too?"
Butterbur sighed and gave him one as well. "Now Mr.
Legolas, I'm only doing this out of the kindness of my
heart--and because I can trust these worthy hobbits to
pay the rest of your bill for you! I've been a good
sport, sending out for more of your favorite vintage and
all, but you ran out of coin two days ago, and I haven't
seen you do much to earn more."
"Do your customers still clamor for pies as fast
as you can make them?" Legolas asked with a charming
"And have I not supplied you with the most flavorful
mushrooms that you've ever imagined?"
"I suppose, but..."
"And did I not, as promised, sing such a merry song
last night that it put everyone in the mood to order
twice as many beers as they'd planned on, and did not the
song draw in still more customers from the streets and
the houses all around?"
"You were a lucky man that night."
"Was I, indeed?" Legolas said with a strange
twinkle in his eye. "Well, then, I am lucky again,
in the company I keep, for I know my friends will not be
stingy with the King's own messenger."
"Of that, at least, I'm satisfied," said
Butterbur, and bustled off to tend his other customers.
Legolas sprang up onto the table and sat on it
crosslegged, cutting the pie and serving slices to each
of them, with a grace that belied his impish position on
the furniture. Frodo found it incredible that anyone
could look at him and not recognize the immortal here
Sam said, mystified, "Butterbur mistook you,
too," as Merry asked, "Legolas, are you in some
kind of financial trouble?"
"Not exactly," Legolas said, finishing off his
drink and pouring himself another. "We have no needs
in my father's palace that we cannot meet with our own
woodcraft. Mushroom gathering, for instance. How do you
like the pie?"
"It's delicious!" Frodo said with his mouth
full. "And the beer goes with it perfectly."
Merry said, "Of course the beer goes with it
perfectly. Gandalf blessed it, so it goes with
everything. Even," he said with a wink,
"oatmeal cookies." Frodo blushed and kept his
eyes on the steak and mushroom pie.
"'Not exactly', you say," Sam persisted.
"I've been around enough to know that 'not exactly
in trouble' means in trouble. What's going on,
"Well," said Legolas, "Trade has fallen
off, so we lack for coin of the realm, not to mention the
rustic delights of human wine." He raised his glass
with a grin, balanced on his fingertip, but Frodo could
see sorrow in the elven eyes, a deep, immeasurable sorrow
that nothing could assuage. "I had some dwarf coin
for awhile, but there never was much trade between
Mirkwood and the Lonely Mountain, and still less now with
the dwarves so few."
"Has there been a falling-out between Mirkwood and
Dale?" Merry asked. "I'm sure King Elessar
could negotiate between..."
"They don't see us!" The voice rang out so
piercing in its pain that Frodo thought for sure all
heads would turn and the tavern would go silent. But the
talk went on as blithely as before, as if nothing had
happened, and the hair stood on end at the nape of
Frodo's neck. "Merry, nobody has a falling out with
people who don't exist."
It suddenly came clear to Frodo. "The
"Ah," said Legolas, "Insightful lad--even
as I said. Yes. The fading of the elves. At first we
did not quite understand, ourselves, what happened before
our eyes. We would go into Dale, and it seemed old
friends would snub us, others would walk right past us
without a glance, or bump into us at times, or we would
go into taverns such as this and wait forever for
service, and then leave unsatisfied. It did not happen all
at once, mind you. At first people would still talk to
us, but they might wander away in the middle of a
conversation, or forget what we'd repeated three times,
or lose the thread somehow. And they did not quite look at
us--their eyes did not meet ours. From there it just got
worse, until now we pass like ghosts in their very midst
without remark. I discovered early on, though, that if I
wore clothing made and worn by human beings, that they
would see me then. But that, too, has its price."
Sam asked, "What price is that, old friend?"
"Ah, but your mugs have gone dry. We must take care
"My mug has not gone dry," Sam argued.
"Really? Let me see." He took the mug from the
hobbit and finished off its contents. "Looks dry to
me. Let me buy you another round--Barliman, over
here!" He stood and waved, then leaped off the table
with a twist in the air, and landed into a seat beside
Merry said, "You mean let me buy us another
"Yes, whatever. What's a few beers between
friends?" Reflectively he added, "Not bad beer
at that--perhaps I should...no. Wine for elves, beer for
dwarves, and anything at all for men and hobbits."
He handed the mug back to Sam and picked up his bottle
and goblet again. "I'll settle for more of the same;
this one's nearly done." He clasped the Bucklander's
arm. "Thank you so much, Merry."
Sam persisted. "The price, Legolas. Tell us--we are
your friends, just like you said."
For a moment Legolas simply drank the last of his wine
and stared across the room, as though all the rest had
become invisible, not him. Then, after the refills
arrived and the server left again, he said, "Let me
tell you a story--a small but true story that happened to
me. I was walking through Dale, in clothing I'd borrowed
from a mortal's clothesline (though I left a fine jeweled
dagger in its place) when I came upon a child trying to
coax a treed kitten from a branch high overhead, where
the little thing hung from two paws, crying piteously.
Well, no sooner seen than I ran up the trunk, onto the
bough, then out onto a branch that would not have held human
weight, but which I, of course, could walk as easily as a
plain path upon the ground. I scooped the kitten up,
dropped down, and delivered it to the boy, as his elders
gathered around, marveling at what they saw. 'How'd you
do that?' asked the boy. 'I am an elf,' I told him.
'You're lying!' he cried, and all the men laughed. I
laughed, too, until I realized that they did not laugh
at a child's folly, but at a joke whicxh they thought that I had made,
that the child had seen through." He brooded into
his drink, then finished it. "And then I laughed
again, along with them, and winked, and walked
Sam squeezed the elf's arm, but said nothing.
As he poured himself another, Legolas said, "I had
no idea what a hard thing Bilbo Baggins did when he lived
hidden among us, invisible all the time and surviving by
Frodo said, "I was going to ask why King Elessar
hasn't sent elven gardeners into Mordor, but I'm
beginning to see the answer for myself."
Legolas smiled sadly. "How right you are, my little
friend. But it is even worse than that." He drew
himself up. "Once we were the mightiest people on
the face of the Earth. Together with the Men of Gondor we
broke the Morannon and stormed the very tower of
Barad-Dur, confronting Sauron and all his legions by our
terrible force of arms!"
Then he seemed to shrink
before their very eyes. "Now, though, our kind can
hardly bear to breath the air of that dark realm, though
Sauron has not held it for a generation of men. We are
not what we were." Again he sipped and said no word,
but they waited for him to continue. "I alone have
ventured in," he said at last, "to see for
myself the plight of the people in that shadowed land.
And no, they did not see me." Then suddenly he
grinned and tossed the cup high into the air, catching it
again without spilling a drop. "But did you know, my
friends, that elf-blood runs in the veins of Nurnen's
"Really?" Sam said. "I would've never
"Some elf, some dwarf, and even some orc, all
mingled together with the human kind. Whichever prisoners
fell into the Dark Lord's hands, he housed them all
crammed together in the same small towns when they became
his slaves, and some found comfort in each other's
arms." He paused, reflecting over his wine.
"Not much orc, actually--they have no skill in
growing anything, and Sauron saw no use in sending them
to farm. But some."
Frodo asked, "Why couldn't you help them farm,
Legolas? Surely if you dressed like them you could pass
for human enough for them to notice you."
The elf laughed. "Because I am a hunter, not a
farmer. Mirkwood has never been known for great
sundrenched fields--we have no art for farming. We used
to turn to Dale for that; now we live on acorn-bread and
drink the ferment of our wild berries." He played a
moment with his glass, saying, "No, vineyards cannot
grow in the shadows of that wood." Then Legolas gave
the young hobbit his full attention, leaning down low on
his arms so that they could face each other eye-to-eye.
"And that is where you come in, Frodo. You do have an
art for growing food of every kind, or Sam would not have
picked you for this post. What do you say, child of my
friend? Have you had enough time to consider our
Instead of answering, Frodo asked, "What's it like
"Actually, it has its own kind of beauty, sometimes,
with the fumes of the Dark Lord cleared away, so that you
can see the jagged lines of mountains stark against a
field of stars. Not a hobbit's kind of beauty, certainly,
nor an elf's, really--though I think the Noldor could
have appreciated it. Dwarves might understand." He
laughed at himself. "And maybe that's why I
understand--I have spent such hours with Gimli that I can
gaze on a line of mountains or the time-colored fracture
in a rock, and see the harsh beauty of a winter thorn
tree sparkling in ice."
"That's not quite what I'm asking," Frodo said.
The elf's eyes turned dark and serious on him. "I
know what you are asking. I know what I need to tell you.
Do you really want to hear it?"
"I do," said Frodo. "I have to."
Legolas sat back up again. "Mordor is a place where
spindly-limbed children lack the strength to play, their
bellies swollen up on vapors from their stomachs eating
themselves. It is a place where men have murdered each
other fighting over the flesh of a rat. It is a place
where women sweep together straw and try to grind it into
flour." Legolas shuddered, took a long deep draught,
and in a husky voice said, "I saw, Frodo, a woman
drop dead in the street for having given all her food to
her child. I saw that child pull down the neck of the
dead woman's gown, remembering a breast that once gave
milk, but she had no breast left, so the child just lay
upon the woman and waited to die, himself, till someone
else came by, one who already had too many mouths to
feed, and carried the boy away."
Frodo sat back, stunned. He took refuge in his beer, but
that final swallow filled him with such magical pictures
of harvest and plenty, crashing headlong into the scenes
that Legolas described, that his head spun with a war
between two worlds. Yet whatever wizard-spell lay on the
beer, it had not been shaped to obscure the suffering of
others. Eventually the harvest images overlaid the scenes
of famine, not to hide them, but to reveal what could be.
What he himself could cause to happen. It overwhelmed
him. Tears started in his eyes--not just of pity, but in
awe of the beauty of being able to do something positive
to change the circumstance he pitied, of being, when it
came right down to it, chosen for the task. And it might
well be that no one could make much difference, least of
all him, chosen or not, yet still he could improve the
world for trying, and he felt the strength in him for
trying, and a hope flooded through him, and all fear
He sat down his empty mug. "I'm in," he said.
"Excellent!" said the elf, clapping him on the
back. "Speaking of in, it is time we all turned in
for the night, I think. Especially since..." and he
turned the bottle upside down, without a drop left in it.
With that he headed straight for the stairs, but rather
than take the steps themselves, he skipped right up onto
the bannister and tripped along its slender length as
lightly as a laugh, while he sang a haunting elvish tune
the whole way up.
Sam chuckled to watch him. "My, my! It seems that
even an elf can have a drop too much. I've never seen
Legolas act up like this in all my born days."
"Not too surprising," said Merry,
"Considering that we'd left him stranded here for
who knows how long waiting for us. Mortal lodgings do
tend to annoy elves."
"Are you both blind?" Frodo exclaimed.
"He's defyin' everyone in the whole blessed inn to
see him for what he is!"
Sam raised a brow. "Seems he's not the only one
who's had a drop too much, if you're taking that tone with your elders."
Frodo sighed in frustration. "Sorry." He
couldn't shake the melancholy in those keen, gray eyes.
"Let's just go to bed," he muttered.
"I should think so." But Sam put his arm around
his son nevertheless, guiding him to the hobbit quarters
on the ground floor. As they prepared for bed, Sam said
to Frodo, "I'm proud of you, lad. I mean, I knew
you'd agree to say yes--that's you all over--but I'm
proud to hear it, all the same."
"Thanks, Papa." He turned May's magnifying
glass in the candlelight before laying it down and
blowing the candle out. "May'd be pleased with the
start I'm gettin' on this adventure," he said
"Oh? And why is that?"
"Frothy head," he murmured, and tumbled into
In the common room, Tim the Gatekeeper had come off his
shift and Butterbur poured him his nightly brew. The old
innkeeper glanced up the stairs approvingly. "That
Mr. Legolas sure is a character," he chuckled,
"and no mistake. A regular mountebank. Did you see
that stunt with the bannister? And after the night he'd
made of it, too. Adds color, he does. Why, I'd be happy
to give him free room and board for all his songs and
stunts, if I didn't think he'd empty my wine cellar too
"Why should you care?" Tim asked. "Folks
come around here for the beer, anyway. Who gives a hoot
about the wine?"
Up in his room Legolas lay in his bed, eyes open, trying
one more time to blend the living night with dreams in
elven fashion. His sharp night-vision showed him a bare
expanse of ceiling that a spider crawled across, and
nothing more. In the room to his left a couple fought
with wounding words that wouldn't heal by morning. To his
right someone had a hacking cough that just went on and
on. Below him someone snored so loudly that he could hear
it rumble through the floor. Above him someone dropped his boots
with a pair of thuds and a grumble about old bones. The
elf at last shut tight his eyes, and tears squeezed out
and trickled off his face.